The First Solar-Powered U.S. Airport Is in City Once Called ‘Dirtiest’ 

(Bloomberg) -- In what could signal a new era in aviation, the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport is about to be the first airfield in the U.S. run on 100-percent solar power.

The airport began installing solar panels this week and expects by the end of next month to derive all of its power needs from the sun. It marks a turn of events that might have shocked newscaster Walter Cronkite, who once declared the south Tennessee town “the dirtiest city in America."

Representatives from nearly 50 airports, ranging from islands in the Caribbean to oil shale-rich Jordan, have traveled to Chattanooga or otherwise reached out to learn about the project since the city launched the effort seven years ago, John Naylor, vice president of planning and development at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority, said in an interview.

Two hours south of Chattanooga at the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson is researching a “micro-grid" approach that would use solar to handle certain electrical loads at the airport, pairing solar with battery storage and efficient transmission to cope with the overnight hours and other periods of low sunlight, said Charles Marshall, the airport’s asset management and sustainability manager.

New York and L.A.

“There is a nationwide effort to increase the use of renewable energy" at airports, including in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, Marshall said.

In Chattanooga, the airport’s solar farm farm includes storage units to help power operations after sundown. The system has a life expectancy of 30 to 40 years, Naylor said, and the investment -- about $5 million primarily from Federal Aviation Administration grants -- should pay for itself in under 20 years.

Chattanooga’s newest designation comes nearly 50 years after Cronkite’s comment on the CBS Evening News jolted the city into transforming its smokestack economy into one built around innovation and outdoor recreation. With a population of only about 180,000, Chattanooga in 2010 built the fastest Internet network in the U.S. and offered fiber to the whole community.

That was one factor that led Volkswagen to build what it says is the world’s only LEED-platinum certified auto plant, with 33,000 solar panels, in the area. Chattanooga is also planning to put solar panels at its waste-water treatment plant, its biggest user of electricity, and is marketing itself as an environmental center, said Mayor Andy Berke, 50, who is considered a rising star in the Tennessee Democratic party and a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate.

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